Trainspotting and Train Riding:
Since Jerome was little he has somewhat been obsessed by vehicles. Japan is a treasure trove for trains; especially the cool Shinkansen bullet trains. One of the best places to spot Shinkansen is by getting a platform ticket for Tokyo station, 入場券 (nyujouken), from one of the ticket machines. A ticket costs 130 Yen here, but varies from station to station elsewhere. Tokyo station is the best station to watch the Shinkansen trains as you will be able to see both JR West (the classic white and blue trains) and most other Shinkansen lines.
Another great place to watch Shinkansen trains is from the Shimogoinden Bridge at Nishi Nippori station. Here you can watch all the Shinkansen trains go underneath the bridge and it also makes a great starting point for the tour to Yanaka, one of the lesser-known parts of Tokyo, (see my post here for details of our experience of that).
Take a trip on the Yurikamome line, a driverless elevated train, from Shimbashi/Shiodome station across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba. As the train is driverless you can sit right at the front where you can enjoy the view while the children get to experience what it would be like to be the driver of the train as it races across the big bridge. Jerome also loves the monorail from Hamamatsucho to Haneda airport that was built for the Tokyo Olympics too.
The Train museum in Onari, Saitama City is a definite must visit for all train buffs. Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Omiya station, from there it is two stops on the New Shuttle to Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan Station. The museum shows the history and technologies of railways and has a vide range of trains on show, including steam trains and one of the first Shinkansen from 1964. Most trains and carriages can be climbed on or into. You can try a train simulator for a small fee and imagine what it would really be like to drive a fast train.
Child friendly museums:
Ghibli museum should be on your list of destinations if you have watches any of their films. Take the Chuo line out of Shinjuku to Mitaka station. From there it is a short bus ride or 15 min walk to the museum. The museum has annual exhibitions about their movies or other fairy tales. The entry ticket for the museum is an actual still of one of their movies. You might get lucky and get a Totoro or Jiji. There is a giant cat bus that small children will love, but it is the little details of the building that made us fall in love with the museum. Besides you are able to watch an unpublished short film in the museum’s cinema. Also a great option for rainy days.
The Drum museum in Akasuka is an interactive museum with over 100 drums from all over the world on display. Get the drumsticks ready and make some noise. Here you get the chance to bang a giant Taiko drum or rather some chimes or gongs. A great option for rainy days and when visiting nearby Sensoji or Hanayashiki Amusement Park.
Exploring the sights by bike:
Cycling has always been a preferred and fun way for us to get around and explore. After he learnt to ride we used to buy a children’s bike from the Muji store at Yurakucho for Jerome, (as it was almost cheaper and easier than finding a hire shop with the right size and renting one) and hire bikes for ourselves.
Tokyo and Japan is a safe city to cycle, with many places where you can use the pedestrian ways but please make sure to follow all the traffic rules. You should be able to judge yourself if your child is old and experienced enough to cycle for longer journeys through the city than just in the park or car free zones.
We found by cycling we discovered many off the beaten track places that delighted us from wonderful cafes to little parks with amazing slides or playgrounds.
There is also a cycle path along the Tama river and the roads down the Meguro river are a good option for a bike ride. Showa Kinen park offers bike rental.
Try a boat ride:
See Tokyo from a different perspective and go on a boat ride along the Sumida River. Take the futuristic looking boat from Hinode/Hamarikyu pier and cruise up the river past to see the impressive skyline from the water. A fun ride for children of all ages. You also have the option to take the boat across to Odaiba/Palette Town from Hinode pier.
Get up high!
Have you ever been on the 445th floor of a building? No then you should head to Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest building in Japan. Children will enjoy the fast ride in the lift to the Galleria on the 350th or 445th floor where they can use interactive maps to explore Tokyo and its sights or stand on a glass floor or take a walk in the sky and of course enjoy the incredible panoramic view over Tokyo. On a clear day you can see up to 70km.
If this is too high for you but still want to enjoy the view over Tokyo then head to the Mori Tower in Roppongi where you can get the view from the 52nd floor or go outside to get the 360º degree view from the rooftop sky deck and you will find yourself 270 meters above sea level. On the 52nd floor you can also find the Mori Art Museum, which hosts interesting exhibitions that even children will enjoy. In the past we have visited a Ghibli and Yayoi Kusama exhibition here. The entrance fee to the museum usually includes the indoor observation deck.
If that is not enough remember Tokyo’s answer to the Eifel Tower – Tokyo tower as another up high option.
Theme parks with a Japanese twist:
We have never been a big fan of theme or fun parks and whilst many tourists head for the big parks like Disney, it has never been our thing. However, we have made exceptions for the Hanayashiki Amusement Park, the oldest fun park in Japan. After visiting Senso-ji temple this is a great way for children to go on rides and enjoy them selves. There are plenty of rides here for kids of all ages. Jerome used to love the cars and train rides when he was very small.
I should also mention Sanrio Puroland. It is definitely worth the train ride out of Shinjuku station to make any girl happy by meeting Hello Kitty for real. Jerome and I went on our first trip to Tokyo, but unfortunately he fell asleep just when we were about to meet Hello Kitty. It is an indoor theme park with shows, rides and a real sized Hello Kitty house with lots of kitsch and pink furniture, anything to make a girls heart beat faster. A possible option for rainy days too.
Shopping children style:
Shopping is not usually something children like to do, but take them to Hakuhinkan Toy store in Ginza and they will be in toy heaven. The largest toy store in Tokyo has a wide array of toys and games for sale, some of them not available outside Japan. You can spend hours in here and also a lot of money if you let the little ones talk you into it! The B1 floor is a girl’s doll paradise. Jerome’s favourite has always been the giant Scalextric racing car course with 8 lanes and many cars to choose from on the top floor. A 5 minute race sets you back 200Yen. Watch out for the parents hogging the track too!
The cheaper alternative might be to head to a Daiso 100Yen store , the biggest is in Harajuku (the one with the biggest selection) or one of the other locations. Here you can spend your Yens in the hundreds on anything from sushi shaped erasers, Japanese souvenirs and toys to kitchenware. We used to get Jerome a Shinkansen train set with tracks, which he used to put up and play with on the hotel room floor, a great souvenir for him too. It is also a great place to pick up colouring books, pens, stickers and other things to keep your children occupied during your stay.
An aquarium in the sky or animals galore?
All children love a visit to an aquarium. Go to Sunshine City to visit the Sunshine Aquarium. This aquarium was reopened after extensive renovations and now features sea lions swimming overhead and a dreamlike “Jellyfish Tunnel” besides your standard aquariums full of colourful fish. You can also watch performances by sea lions and divers and penguin feeding shows. While you are already in the Sunshine City building you should consider going to the planetarium (a great option for older kids, please check before if audio guides in English are available for the show) or the viewing platform on the 60th floor.
Want to see more animals? Then head to Ueno Zoo, the oldest zoo in Japan. Here you will be able to see giant pandas, tigers and elephants, just to mention a few. Take the monorail to the west side of the zoo where little ones will love the Petting Zoo. You also have the chance to see rare animals like Okapis and Aye-Ayes, which have been bred in the zoo’s breeding program and are endangered in the wild. Afterwards take a stroll along the pond to admire the lotus flowers and a ride on one of the swan pedal boats.
Parks and playgrounds:
Playgrounds in Tokyo and Japan are plentiful and there the kids can burn off some energy. They can be found in many places, mostly parks and squares but sometimes they surprisingly turn up at the most unexpected places. They offer fun equipment from the standard swings and slides to sometimes more exotic features like dinosaurs and roller slides. Most playgrounds are aimed at smaller children and toddlers but there are some for older kids as well, like the Heiwa no Mori Park and Setagaya Park. Bring a picnic from one of the convenience store and give yourselves a well-needed break from sightseeing.
Most children love a visit to the pool, especially in summer when the heat and humidity in Tokyo can get oppressive. I would try and avoid the large pool complexes, as they get very crowded particularly on weekends and in the summer holidays. The indoor/outdoor pool in Meguro is a good option for all year round swimming and also has a small pool for babies and toddlers. Sumida City Gymnasium is an indoor pool with a good-sized infant pool, Setagaya Chitose indoor pool has a 43m slide. If you do not care about the expense then why not stay at one of the hotels that offer a pool, there are a few that have an outdoor pool as well. An extensive list of all pools in Tokyo can be found here. Please note that it is often essential to wear a swimming cap, they can be purchased at most pools, and people with tattoos might not be allowed into the pools or may have to cover their tattoos with plasters or wear a UV vest.
More museums with a difference:
The Fire museum is a museum dedicated to the people, machines and science involved in fire prevention. Here you can see massive fire engines and even e helicopter that your kids can climb into. Both adults and children can try on firemen’s clothing. It has great displays and equipment to show the history of fire fighting in Tokyo. The best part, entry to the museum is free. Tokyo Fire Museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday unless a national holiday.
Tokyo Kite museum is a hidden gem. The owner spent a lifetime collecting over 3000 kites and they can now be seen layering the walls and crowding the ceiling of this one room museum. Here you can see kites from all over Japan together with kites from China and other Asian countries.
The Origami Museum is a great place to learn about the quintessential art of Origami. Get your children to learn techniques on how to fold paper into the shapes of animals, plants and other objects. There are incredible displays of landscapes and scenes all made of paper on show. On the 4th floor you can watch how washi (Japanese handmade paper) is made and dyed which you are able to purchase in the shop.
A little culture for little ones:
Temple and shrines are a great way to introduce Japanese culture to the little ones. First you get to purify yourself at the Chouzuya, a water basin, usually covered by a roof with a dragon or a bamboo pipe sprouting water. Then head to the building where you might have to take off your shoes and step in to honour the Buddha. Some temples and shrines also have a bell hanging on a rope. In this case children can throw some coins into the collection box and then ring the bell and clap your hands and pray. You might be lucky to her some monks chanting or even see them walking around. Larger temples have several building to see, sometimes a garden and cemetery.
You might also buy a wooden prayer plaque, they usually have colourful pictures on them and occasionally funny shapes. Choose one and write your wish on the back and hang them with the other “Ema” so the “Kami” (spirit or god) can receive them.
Try your luck at the Oracle and draw an “Omikuji” from the wooden box. The Omikuji are usually bamboo or plastic sticks, which will contain a number. Take the paper strip out of the right numbered drawer and read your fortunes. Most fortunes are in Japanese but you can always translate them with the Google translate app. If the fortune is bad you should tie it to the tree or wires near the oracle. A good fortune can be taken with you or also tied up as well.
Explore the paths in the gardens:
Japanese gardens offer a quiet resting and strolling place away from the hectic Tokyo life. They offer children a break from the busy streets and give them a chance to walk around and explore nature in the middle of Tokyo. Show them the beautiful plants and animals, in summer you can see butterflies and dragonflies buzzing around.
There are small paths, little bridges, stepping stones through streams to be explored and in some gardens children are able to feed the kois and terrapins. Admire the beautiful plants and animals. Our favourite gardens in Tokyo are Rikugien and Hamarikyu but there are plenty more to be explored.
All over Tokyo and Japanese cities in general children will be delighted by the interesting and different foods, whether from cafes, street stalls or stores. In summer they will love Kakigori (shaved ice) with a myriad of different flavourings. We have found street stands or stalls at the temples selling Taiyaki (fish-shaped sweet pancakes), sausages or cucumbers on a stick plus interesting fruits. There are many shops dedicated to crazy crepes, bubble tea and cartoon character buns, not mention unusual sweets and candy. You might struggle to get them to eat squid flavoured ice cream…
Whatever you decide to do we have found that Tokyo is full of the unexpected, so even a simple walk can turn up surprises, whether it is a donut stand selling cat tail donuts, café with crazy cakes or a manga shop selling 1960’s toys, the city can enchant children.